The Frontier Set was a select group of high-performing, high-potential colleges, universities, state systems, and supporting organizations committed to eliminating race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success by transforming how institutions operate. They came together to understand transformation, collaborate, and share insights with the foundation and one another. The key insight: Equity-focused transformation is possible.

As you review the insights about the individual components of transformation, the key drivers that make it possible and help sustain it, keep in mind that while each is discussed separately, in practice they are very much interconnected.

What Is a Transformation Model?

Transformation is a journey, along which incremental changes to the way an institution operates allow that institution to continuously improve and align its policies and practices to better serve students. Sustainable change takes time, intentionality, and a comprehensive approach to ensure reform efforts and activities are organized cohesively. With the help of Frontier Set institutions, we have a better understanding of models that can help other institutions sustain their transformation efforts.

For institutions in the Frontier Set, a transformation model reflected a shift in an institution’s structures, culture, and business model, and encompassed the systems, processes, practices, tools, and methods used to serve students equitably. Rather than defining a transformation model as a single unit, it’s helpful to consider it as being made up of parts that work collaboratively to address the student success priorities identified through a data-driven decision-making process.

How Does a Transformation Model Work?

Frontier Set institutions intentionally leveraged an organizing framework for transformation to integrate essential elements of their equity-focused transformation model. In doing so, they created a coherent and cohesive path forward, centered around the student experience, and embedded in the institution’s structures, culture, and business model. Although integrated frameworks varied by institutional size and context, the most effective integrated frameworks observed in the Frontier Set included, at a minimum, the following attributes:

  • Equitable student success at the center
    Parity in educational outcomes is prioritized and communicated in an institution’s mission, explicit in strategic plans, and measured using disaggregated student data.
  • Perspective on the student experience
    Mapping the student experience to identify barriers and chart a clear path from matriculation to completion.
  • Targeted interventions to improve the student experience
    Implement evidence-based solutions that measurably improve the student experience.
  • Operating capacities to enable interventions
    Strengthen structures and routines that enable effective implementation, tracking, and improvement of targeted interventions.

Elements of a Transformation Model

What transformation looked like varied greatly across the institutions in the Frontier Set. However, the components that contributed to transformation were similar across most institutions. Whether an institution built out its data infrastructure or restructured advising to create a more streamlined student experience, Frontier Set institutions demonstrated that certain elements were common in a cohesive transformation model.

The various components of the transformation model were divided into four categories: transformation capacities, core interventions, methods, and tools. The examples cited here are specific to the Frontier Set institutions and may not generally be essential to achieving transformation.

Transformation Capacities refer to an institution’s operating capacities and campus-wide engagements that enable change by creating the conditions necessary for transformation. Transformation capacities may include:

Data Capacity — an institution’s ability to collect, report, visualize, and use data to support transformation efforts. For Frontier Set institutions, data capacity was viewed as both the development of data infrastructure and data definitions within institutional technology (IT) and institutional research (IR), and the ability of faculty, staff, and administrators to use this data.

In the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities Essentials of Transformation case study, Portland State University’s leadership discussed how it leveraged quantitative and qualitative data while implementing initiatives to enhance the student experience as well as the experiences of staff and faculty. Integrating data and insights was essential to the institution’s ability to respond to changes, including leadership transitions.

Focus on Equity — an institution’s commitment to equity reflected in parity in student success outcomes. In many cases, Frontier Set institutions focused on data to identify institutional performance gaps in student success outcomes. Institutions also created new positions and committees charged with examining and improving equitable outcomes on campus.

Communication and Stakeholder Engagement — communication efforts, often from leadership, that provide direction to people across the institution about the vision for equitable student success and their role in that transformation. It also creates opportunities for those stakeholders to engage consistently and continuously.

Cross-Functional Collaboration — formal and informal joint efforts between leadership, staff, and faculty across divisions and institutional functions. In the Frontier Set, cross-functional collaboration created an environment where various stakeholders could directly engage in transformation efforts, allowing for distributed leadership and grassroots efforts. Realizing an institution’s student success and equity agenda is a team effort and requires engagement across departments, schools, and campuses.

For example, Jackson State University made concerted efforts to foster cross-unit and cross-department coordination and communication aimed at breaking down silos and increasing institutional buy-in for student success. Department leaders met regularly to hear updates from other departments and discuss ways each department could support various initiatives at the institution.

2021 AIR Institutional Case Summary

Core Interventions refer to an institution’s targeted interventions and initiatives that quicken the pace of change, resulting in improved student success outcomes. These interventions were specific to the Frontier Set institutions where they occurred, and are not necessarily a requirement for transformation.

Advising Reform — restructuring departments, personnel, and processes to create a more streamlined experience for students, typically aligned with program maps to guide student decision-making. Advising reforms were also often tied to acquiring new technology platforms and to centralizing advisement personnel and processes.

Developmental Education Reform — redesign or elimination of developmental education courses to facilitate student transition to ensure that students complete gateway courses. Most institutions in the Frontier Set employed strategies to reduce or eliminate the amount of time students spent in developmental coursework, including self-paced modularized curricula, co-requisite models, and the use of multiple measures for placement. These reforms dramatically reduced equity gaps in which students completed gateway courses.

Digital Learning — the use of new technology software, and extensive faculty professional development on how to use software, to improve the teaching and learning process led to increased student outcomes in online courses.

For example, Wake Tech Community College launched a QEP (Quality Enhancement Plan) for digital learning to increase student success rates to match face-to-face coursework. The QEP is based on EPIC, which began in 2015. The overall goal of EPIC was to remove barriers and provide better support to students learning remotely. EPIC resulted in the narrowing of success rate gaps between seated and online courses in high enrollment gateway courses from over 5% to less than 3%, overall, with gaps in some courses closing entirely. Additionally, EPIC was a key factor in maintaining enrollment and quality of instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic (read the Transformational Change in Response to COVID-19 research brief).

Wake Tech also created a multidisciplinary team of faculty and staff dedicated to online learning. The team was responsible for orienting students and creating a faculty certification program. The institution even went as far as to develop a system that allowed certified peer reviewers to review each online course. (2020 AIR Institutional Case Summary)

Program Mapping — sequencing courses to facilitate student retention, progression, and completion of degree programs. In the most ideal scenarios, program maps are a core component of guided pathways (see below). Program maps were used to streamline course options so students completed coursework that would allow them to effectively complete a credential in a timely fashion, and ensure alignment to workforce skills and/or to ensure transfer to a partner university in junior standing.

Tutoring Centers and Academic Support — using tutoring centers, supplemental instruction, and other academic support services to support student learning. These academic supports were key in advancing developmental education reforms and improving gateway course success. In some cases, tutoring support occurred in tutoring centers or academic lab settings, while at some institutions, embedded tutors were utilized in courses with historically low success rates.

Santa Fe College created the Digital Learning Plan to provide students with individualized skill development and instructional support. The plan was built on four key areas the institution saw as essential to student success in digital learning: onboarding, student development, academics, and next steps. The plan included a tool called My Status to provide students with information and deadlines for admissions, honors, housing, and financial aid. Overall, this provided timely support and interventions to help students achieve success in online courses.

2020 AIR Institutional Case Summary

Methods refer to institutional practices, processes, and structures that support transformation.

Across the Frontier Set, institutions used common methods to support communication efforts, to ensure stakeholder engagement, and to promote collaboration by communicating core messages.

Meetings and Convenings — gatherings such as campus-wide or divisional meetings were used to regularly communicate core messages, develop urgency, and provide updates on the progress of transformation efforts.

Shared Artifacts — standardized talking points and data were used to ensure alignment on core messaging regarding transformation efforts.

Tools refer to technology, software, and platforms that support an institution’s transformation model.

Technology tools were key in building data capacity at Frontier Set institutions, as well as in advancing core interventions such as advising reforms.

Advising Technology — used to support new advisement processes and structures that allowed the implementation of early alert systems and interventions, as well as to facilitate streamlined communications to students.

Data Technology —used to collect, monitor, analyze, and display key performance metrics to support and strengthen institution-wide decision-making. These included new Enterprise Resource Planning systems, data warehouses, and data visualization tools.

As you’ve read, the journey of institutional transformation is a process that starts with incremental changes to impact how student populations are supported. Each core intervention or transformation capacity is an opportunity for progress. Consider your own institutional structures, culture, and business model to identify how a transformation model can work for you.

Reflection Questions

Use these questions to reflect on your own, or discuss with colleagues to inform and accelerate your institution’s transformation progress. For additional insights and guiding questions, please download our collection of Insights to Act On.

  • Does your institution have a perspective about the student experience?
  • What are the operating capacities that already exist at your institution that can be used to support a successful transformation model?
  • Does your institution have a strong data infrastructure and culture of using data as a tool for transformation?
  • How does your institution use disaggregated student data to prioritize equity and to ensure student success outcomes reflect students from all backgrounds?


A note on citations: Examples from the Frontier Set institutions are cited from reports and case studies which may not be publicly available. Each example referenced has been approved by the institution for inclusion on this site.

Frontier set

Insights to act on

Use these questions to reflect on your own, or discuss with colleagues to inform and accelerate your institution’s transformation progress. For additional insights and guiding questions, please download our collection of Insights to Act On.

Using Reflection to Advance Equity-Focused Transformation

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Using Cross-Functional Efforts to Advance Equity-Focused Transformation

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Integrated Approaches to Equity-Focused Transformation

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